Tuesday, September 6, 2005


Cyber age ND BATRA
Of human bonds in the digital age
From The Statesman

In this digital age of loosening human bonds and transitory attachments to disembodied groups that rise and disappear in cyberspace, sense and sensibility of place, its physical and cultural geography, is becoming important to people.
The feeling of being in New York or Kolkata, the smells, the sounds, the sweltering summer, has become so desirable. Cultural values and religious life of a people are anchored in physical space. Once upon a time, there stood in their majestic grandeur the mighty World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. In the swirling waters of New Orleans hit by hurricane Katrina, stood the French Quarters.
Personal digital assistants, third generation cell phones, the Internet anywhere and wireless global connectivity are diminishing face-to-face interactions and engagement from the realities of life. But natural calamities like the onslaught of Katrina on the Gulf coast, especially in Louisiana and Mississippi, like the horrific attacks on New York and the Pentagon, bring back people their sense of humanity.
The question is whether the digital age, which gives us the choice to work and collaborate from anywhere, could also revitalise and renew abandoned downtowns and slums especially in big cities like New Orleans. Bulletin boards, chat rooms and virtual communities hold the promise of bringing about new social activism in community and empower people to demand changes, but so far it has not been happening. “Roman law was designed to shape the behaviour of the citizens, preferably through self-regulation, into conformity with deeply held notions of personal and civic virtue,” wrote Joel Kotkin in The New Geography. Can civic responsibility be maintained if one loses a sense of place?
After the attack on New York, every one from taxi drivers to the mayor began chanting, “I love New York.” Although no one said, I love the Pentagon, the attack on a symbol of the US military power steeled the national resolve to eliminate the evil from its roots.
Digital economy tends to make people less committed to their communities and, as Kotkin said, “The information-age aristocracy — with access to instant communications technology and dependent only on the work of elite knowledge workers — can live in a kind of self-created universe.” But much more than a self-created universe was shattered on 11 September, which Rudolph Giuliani, the ex-Mayor of New York tried to restore.
Only a local leader could have done it; but in the process Mr Giuliani became a symbol of resurgent America. That’s what has been missing in the havoc caused by Katrina in New Orleans, the birthplace of Jazz, Mardi Gras, Cajun cuisine, and much more.
The closer the world becomes because of globalisation, the greater will be the need for localism and committed local leaders. Think about the wisdom of those magnificent Indian leaders of the post-freedom era who had the courage to reorganise the country along linguistic and cultural boundaries, thus strengthening local bonds. India is democratic and strong because of the distinct identities of the regional people, who become united, greater than the sum of the parts, when the occasion arises.
Yet a serious question arises as to how a region should make itself attractive enough to keep and lure the elite, when a substantial portion of work becomes mobile and could be done from anywhere in the world. Peter Drucker, the management guru, saw the digital economy threatening “a new class conflict between the large minority of knowledge workers and the majority of people who make their living traditionally”.
In the 1990s’ technology-driven boom, the median family income in the USA went down, while the number of millionaires more than doubled. Trickledown economy has been trickling very slowly to the bottom rung of the people. Stock market does not spread wealth, though the number of Americans owning stock directly or through their pension funds has increased substantially. When the top 10 per cent own 90 per cent of the stock, market alone cannot provide a cure for poverty. Migration of jobs from industrial rust-belts to other countries and the consequent desertion of erstwhile prosperous communities have been causing pain.
President George W Bush’s call to reform education, including testing and teachers’ accountability, has been an attempt to halt “the geography of despair” created by “the growing power of locational choices” by the elite and corporations, who are becoming increasingly global, mobile and rootless.
Kotkin suggested “the urgent need to concentrate on building a broader economy, including some industrial and warehouse functions, that could tap into the skills and energies of those people who might otherwise be left behind”. Consider this, for example: When China exports shoes, garments and electronics, it spreads wealth among its lower-class semi-skilled people.
When India exports software, it spreads wealth mostly among the elite. When the elite become disconnected with other social groups, the community withers away. In the digital age, Kotkin observed, “The oldest fundamentals of place — a sense of community, identity, history, and faith — not only remain important, they are increasingly the critical determinants of success and failure.
As people and advanced industries hunt the globe for locations...they will seek out a new kind of geography, one that appeals to their sense of value and to their hearts, and it is there that the successful communities of the digital age will be found.” But what about New Orleans where 68 per cent of the people are black and feel abandoned?


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  2. Prof. Batra has forgotten to mention another catastrophe of our digital age. The art of letter writing and its corollary essay writing is fast vanishing, if not vanished completely. [When was the last time I wrote a letter to an ailing friend or a lovelorn relative? I frankly can’t remember] S.M.S and the ubiquitous e-mail breed a different kind of language, destitute of empathy and no way foster any sense of fraternal feelings. We have schools doing brisk business teaching useful English in India and a strange centaur is being taught to the people [ who have neither the time nor the inclination to go the whole hog ]which goes the by the name of Spoken English, Business English , Commerce English and what have you.

    We owe it not to the good Empress Katherine of All Russia but to another
    terrible lady with a voracious appetite, Typhoon Katarina to expose the soft underbelly of the numero uno nation to the whole world and what a sight it is.
    It beggars description to say the least. The debate will surely rage long and tedious and there will be much chewing the cud about what went wrong and how much is George W’s contribution. We in India would surely have laughed had not human misery, be it in Baghdad or New Orleans evokes so much pain and misery to the beholder.

  3. Mr. Choudhury,
    Thanks for your insightful comments.
    ND Batra